Mary was allowed to keep to her rooms for her prayers, less out of any sense of indulgence on Lady Bryan’s part and more for fear of her corrupting some of the housegirls into returning to the true Church. Her rosary, pearl and Spanish gold, was worn smooth by the frantic prayers she had been offering for her own safety and for her mother’s health, and she remained surprised that it had not been taken away from her yet, unlike nearly everything else.
Including her privacy.
Mary spun to her feet when the door to her tiny closet of a chamber banged back against the wall. Her plain little crucifix rocked atop her rickety prie-dieu, and she hid her rosary as best she could in the folds of her skirt - it had once been her lady grandmother’s, her father had told her so when he gave it to her. That had been before the woman had even come to court, when the King had still loved the Queen and the harlot was busy learning her harlotry in the French court, of course. Since her arrival, Mary’s father had given her nothing but heartache.
“Sir Henry,” Mary said, stomach lurching nervously. No one had come to speak with her in such a long time that she was unsure how she was supposed to handle a guest. This guest in particular worried her enormously, for there were few more loyal to her father than Sir Henry. Mary remembered him, from her childhood - her lady mother had liked him best of all her father’s friends, for the exactingly perfect manners he always displayed to his Queen. But on the last visit that he had been allowed, Ambassador Chapuys had shared rumours that Sir Henry Norris was courting a Mistress Margaret Shelton, cousin and lady-in-waiting to the harlot, and that made his presence less palatable to Mary.
How was it that none of those men who had been at court during the reign of a true queen could see the Boleyn woman for what she was?
“To what do I owe this visit?” she asked. She would not call it a pleasure. She would hold that honesty for herself, if nothing else.
“I am to escort you from Hatfield, my lady,” he said, bowing just a little, hat in hand. He was balding, she noticed, right on the crown of his head, and she wondered if her father was doing the same. She had not seen him in so long that he was doubtless changed beyond recognition, by time and by that woman alike. It seemed impossible that he would still be the spry, cheerful man of her memory. “By order of the King, and with written permission from your lady mother.”
Mary had not even seen her lady mother’s handwriting in such a long time that she nearly ripped the neatly folded letter from Sir Henry’s hands. He was not offering it to her, of course, but every inch of her felt wild with the desire to have her mother with her in this moment. Her mother was doubtless outraged that Mary had been sent to little Elizabeth’s household, servant to her bastard sister, but who knew what lies she had been told? Perhaps she had been assured that Mary was to be set up in her own household, even restored to Ludlow until such a time as a son was born to the harlot, but Mary knew such a thing was impossible. Ambassador Chapuys had worked hard to assure her that the King still held her in high regard, that her father still bore the proper paternal affection toward her, but Mary had been finding it difficult to reconcile a father’s love with a King’s displeasure in recent weeks.
“And where would you bring me, sir?” Mary asked, terrified now that the woman had convinced her father to throw her in the Tower. It wouldn’t take much, she supposed. Whatever skills the woman had, they had been enough to convince the most Christian King in Europe to break with Rome and set aside his lawful wife, she herself the next thing to a saint! It would be a little thing for her, surely, to push him into putting Mary in the Tower - and from there, it was a short walk to the block.
A shorter drop from there to a noose, she thought, cold and rigid with fear. Would her father even allow her the respect of a beheading, when a hanging could be used to end all protests against her having been stripped of her rank? Even the Yorkist pretender during her grandfather’s reign had been given the honour of a beheading, but Mary did not know how far the woman would go to ensure Elizabeth’s place, and she did not know how far her father would go to prove himself right.
“To Westhorpe, my lady,” Sir Henry said. “The home of the Duke of Suffolk, Lord Brandon.”
“I know who the Duke of Suffolk is, Sir Henry,” Mary said, wondering what in the world Charles Brandon had done to be worthy of such punishment as being given her wardship - surely no man in the country wished to be given her care? It was surely a death sentence. Perhaps that was why Lord Suffolk had offered to take her care - he had survived marrying the King’s sister without permission, so surely he could survive keeping the King’s daughter from those who would use her treasonously. “He is my uncle, after all, his children my cousins.”
“Quite,” Sir Henry said, sounding harassed, for some reason. Was it not Mary who was being harassed, torn from her rightful place to play nursemaid to the babe who’d taken her position, now passed as poison chalice to her aunt’s widower? “I, ah, I have spoken to Lady Bryan about having your things packed up for travel-”
“I can look after my own things, sir,” Mary said, sharply as she dared. If she allowed the Howard-trained servants into her closet, no doubt anything of value would disappear - she had so little, most from her mother and a little from her father, and she could not bear to lose any of it. “It will not take me long.”
She paused, gritted her teeth, and forced herself to smile a little. She would give him no excuse to offer a bad report of her conduct to her father.
“Thank you, though,” she said. “Are we to leave in the morning, sir?”
“Tonight, my lady,” he said, now looking more embarrassed than anything. “The King requests that your transfer be made… quickly.”
Secretly, then. Perhaps this wasn’t the woman’s doing, wasn’t a punishment to Lord Suffolk. Perhaps Ambassador Chapuys had been right in saying that her father still loved her. Perhaps he had shaken off the woman’s influence enough to rescue Mary, and Westhorpe House was a waystop on the path to a better place - even seclusion seemed better than this.
“I will wait for you downstairs, my lady,” Sir Henry said quietly, hat still in white-knuckled hand. “Please ask for help, if it is needed - I will ensure Lady Bryan offers any assistance you might need, and can supervise, if you think it necessary.”
That was unexpectedly kind of him. What exactly was going on?
It truly did not take her long to gather up her possessions into the travel case her father had provided for her on her departure from Ludlow. She had a few serviceable gowns, all made in dark colours to hide stains and allow longer between launderings, and the best quality of undergarments she had been able to afford on the meagre allowance her father had deigned to provide for her. She had furs, too, because her stipend had arrived in August and had not been renewed until Christmastide, so she had chosen to sweat through the autumn in winter-weight gowns and underthings rather than die of exposure in her closet with its broken window in early December.
She hid her few pieces of jewellery inside her spare gloves, tucked deep into the trunk, and left behind the shoes that had worn clean through in the left sole - surely Lord Suffolk would provide her enough of an allowance to buy a new pair of shoes?
Sir Henry was arguing with Lady Bryan by the time Mary managed to drag her trunk to the top of the stairs. Neither one of them was shouting, thank God, but they were angry enough that neither one of them noticed her until the hall was echoing with the thud-thud-thud of her trunk clattering down the steps.
“God Above, my lady,” Sir Henry said, once more red-faced and harassed. “Please, allow me-”
“I must still-”
“You must be quiet, Lady Bryan,” Sir Henry snapped, sweeping Mary’s trunk up and onto his shoulder - how sad that was! So very recently, it would have taken a household’s worth of footmen to carry her belongings, and now one man in middle-age and of little activity could bear the burden all on his own! “Lady Mary will come with me now, and I will hear nothing more of it.”
And he heard nothing more of it. Lady Bryan, so unused to being spoken down to in what she openly considered as her household, stood aside in shock as Sir Henry led Mary out to a waiting carriage. She roused herself enough to stand in the doorway as Sir Henry climbed up in front and whipped the horses into motion, and Mary’s last view of Hatfield was Lady Bryan’s pale, furious face haloed from below by candlelight.
Her only regret was that she had not had a chance to wish Elizabeth farewell. Bastard or not, they were still sisters.
Westhorpe was a fine house, with windows enough to prove Lord Suffolk’s wealth even if the beautiful gardens could not, and Mary had never visited it before. Perhaps that was strange, given that her aunt had been the lady here for so long, that her only English cousins were here, but she had been in Ludlow, had been heir to the throne, and so too busy to visit.
She regretted it now, a little, when Sir Henry helped her down from the carriage and presented her to Lord Suffolk and his children. If she knew them better, she might not be so ashamed to be presented in such plain, mean clothes. She might feel less conscious of being so plain-faced, against their being so handsome and handsomely dressed.
But then, of course they were more handsome than she was. Her aunt Mary had been the best-looking of Elizabeth of York’s children, and Lord Suffolk was the most handsome man at court. His good looks and charm had made him Mary’s favourite of all her father’s friends and followers as a child. Mary knew her father was handsome, that her mother was beautiful, but she had inherited neither his vitality nor her grace, and felt the worse off for it.
It was dark. It had to be into the small hours of the morning, but Lord Suffolk and his children were standing outside their house to greet her. She was tired enough that it was only now striking her as odd, that her departure had been so cloaked in mystery, for her to arrive into a circle of lantern-light and a formal welcome.
“I see you failed to tell her a damned thing, Hal,” Lord Suffolk said, shoving Sir Henry aside with a scowl before bowing over Mary’s hand. “Welcome, my lady. Please, come inside - it is a little chilly, and no doubt some hot cider would do you more good than lingering out here to meet my children.”
That was odd, too. Lord Suffolk had always been kind and jolly with Mary, even though her mother had disapproved of his conduct in a general sort of sense that Mary had not understood as a child, and had always called her niece when they were among family. Why was he being so formal? Why my children, and not your cousins?
The cold, rigid fear from earlier returned. The heat of the cup Lord Suffolk pressed into her hands startled her so badly that she almost dropped it on his feet - when had they arrived in this well-appointed room? Where had her cousins disappeared to?
“Please sit, my lady,” he said, gesturing to a comfortable looking chair by the fireside. Mary had not been allowed to sit by the fire in so long that the heat made her sleepy almost immediately, and she had to blink herself awake. Even the well-stuffed chair felt like an obscene luxury, after her spare little chamber at Hatfield. “Sir Henry did not tell you why you were being brought to this house, then?”
“I assumed because you are my uncle, sir,” she said, deciding that honesty was her best chance. Better they all think her stupid than believe she had some sort of agenda. “I thought that I was to be placed in your custody, but I now think that perhaps that is not it.”
“His Majesty the King has been brought credible rumours of a Spanish plot to spirit you out of England so that you might be married to the Emperor’s nephew - he is a boy of six, but that would not matter to the Emperor, nor to your father. His Majesty has decided that you are to be married, and quickly, to someone whose loyalty is absolute.”
Ambassador Chapuys had told her not so very long ago that her cousin Henry Brandon was to marry María de Salinas’ daughter, the Baroness Willoughby de Eresby. Lady Willoughby was too rich a woman to risk offending by breaking a betrothal, and so Mary could not be here to marry Henry Brandon. All Lord Suffolk’s other children, both those by her aunt Mary and by his previous wives, were daughters. Which left only one loyal man for her to marry, here in Westhorpe House.
“No,” she said, trying to sink into the chair. The heat of the fire felt stifling now, overwhelming. She thought she might be sick. “No, you are my uncle.”
“Only by marriage,” he said, looking almost as queasy as she felt. “And for the sake of your fears, I have had Ambassador Chapuys petition Rome on our behalf for a dispensation - I ask that you never speak a word of it to your father, though. Such things must be handled with absolute discretion at present, as I am sure you can understand.”
Her fears! For the sake of her immortal soul, she could not marry a man who had carnal knowledge of her father’s sister! And even with a dispensation from His Holiness, she- how could she marry this man? It was unthinkable!
He had four daughters and a son. The youngest of them, Mary’s own cousin Henry, was only seven years her junior. God be good, cousin Frances was only six months her junior! How was she supposed to play mother to them, or to his older daughters? He had grandchildren not terribly much younger than her! She knew that was a silly concern, because so many women married men decades their senior. She knew that her own lord grandfather had considered her lady mother as a bride, when his wife her grandmother had died, and would have been granted dispensation had he sought it. She herself had been set to wed her cousin the Emperor, the better part of twenty years her elder, but-
But he wasn’t father to the cousins who would have been her closest companions, had that woman not poisoned her lord father against her. She should have been calling Frances and Eleanor Brandon cousin, been calling them friend. The very thought of calling them daughter made her head spin.
“Then dispensation has been granted,” she guessed, trying to distract from the wretched, sickly feeling curling in her belly. “Or you would not be so confident in my going ahead with this arrangement peacefully.”
“And we have been granted a special license, too,” he agreed, folding his arms tight over his chest. She had always known him as a big man, not as tall as her lord father but strong and powerful all the same. He had never seemed quite so massive as in this moment, looming over her. “We are to be wed as soon as appropriate clothes can be arranged for you, by order of the King.”
Appropriate clothes? Appropriate clothes? Mary did not think she had ever been so angry! She did not dare express such a thing, though, for fear that she would be left only with the Tower, if she refused Lord Suffolk’s suit.
Charles had never seen any person sit so completely still.
He had begged Hal to tell the poor girl why she was being brought here. At least if she’d had the ride from Hatfield to overcome the shock, she might not be on the verge of swooning all over his damned study!
Well, not swooning - he’d been around Tudors long enough to know what that terrible, pale stillness meant. Mary, his Mary, had once clawed him so badly he still carried the scars on his shoulder in the explosive fury that followed that quietude. He had always known when he had overstepped in an argument, because Mary would clench her fists and go absolutely rigid with temper, and then he had moments to either apologise or suffer.
But this Mary did not leap at him, as her namesake always had. She did not erupt into the kind of stormy bellowing her father made such effective use of. Instead, she became stiller, and paler, and somehow smaller. That was closer to the aloofness her mother had used to such powerful effect in the last days before Harry exiled her to the More. That terrible icy hardness, which locked everything inside where it could be reached by neither solace nor malice.
Charles had heard talk that the Queen- that was, the Princess Dowager - had screamed when Harry left her chambers. None of her ladies had breathed a word, of course, too loyal even unto that undeserved, ungentle end, but there were other members of a Queen’s household than just her devoted ladies-in-waiting, and they had been more readily bought.
Would Harry’s sweet pearl scream her anguish, when Charles had her shown to her rooms? He doubted it. He did not think that she could bear to give him even that much, which boded well indeed for their marriage.
Hank and the girls were waiting for him in his study once he had walked Lady Mary to her room and the care of the two sensible ladies he had hired to care for her, on Muddy’s orders. She had gone silently, her dainty hands folded white-knuckled before her, and had given a curtsy elegant enough for a queen when he took his leave, betrayed only by the exhausted wobble when she moved to regain her feet.
In the half-light of the bedchamber door, she had looked painfully like his Mary. He had stopped to empty his stomach on his way back to the study, for fear that he would do it before the children and upset them. How was he supposed to endure this, he wondered? How was he supposed to keep this pale, angry shade of his brilliant wife as his bride without losing his mind? A worry for another day, when the children were not waiting for him.
Bless Muddy, though, for keeping them corralled and quiet. He would have gone quite mad without Muddy in those first days after Mary’s death. The desperate shock of it all, of his lovely, healthy wife wasting away to a spectre while they watched, of trying to tame Frank’s temper and Nell’s tears and Hank’s refusal to accept that his mother was dying - he would never have managed it without Muddy.
A shame that Nan was not her sister’s equal. Even he would not have dared such a stupid scandal as Nan’s - and he had married a princess without the King’s permission.
Charles would be the first to admit that he was a poor husband. He had never let his vows keep him from a pleasant evening, and he could be neglectful at best of his wives’ needs and desires, but he prided himself on being a good father. He and dear Anne had hated one another by the end, but Nan was beautiful and charming, if a ruddy scandal, and Muddy was surely the best-natured woman in the whole of England. Mary had probably hated him by the end, too, but Frank and Nell and Hank were children any man would be proud of - children Charles knew the King was jealous of, which was the highest praise imaginable.
Or, it might have been, had the King had the sense to take pride in the children he had already. Even if Fitzroy was a bastard, he was a clever, handsome boy, and until Harry had stripped the poor girl of her place there had not been a princess to equal the Lady Mary in Christendom. How could there have been, when Queen Katherine- damn it all, Princess Dowager Katherine had taken such particular pains to ensure that the lady was worthy of the throne they had all assumed she would one day sit?
“You’ll meet her properly in the morning, for your introductions,” he said, holding his hands up to stall Frank’s questions. She was the nosiest child he’d ever met, every bit as imperious as her mother had been, and she had become worse in the long six months since Mary’s death. “Let her rest - she has had a difficult time of it, since the birth of the Princess Elizabeth.”
“And before it,” Frank said, not content to behave herself even though it was late enough to tip toward morning. “We are not stupid, Papa - we know what cousin Mary has endured. Mama did not try to hide such things from us, as though we were silly children.”
“Now is not the time for your sharp tongue, Frances,” Muddy said, squeezing Frank’s hard shoulder - in comfort. Muddy’s own children were sleeping, but she had not a moment away from maternal duties, and Charles could not help but feel guilty for how entirely he relied on her. The children had nursemaids and keepers, of course they did, but Mary had always been an active, interested mother in the unfashionable way, and only Muddy’s gentle touch had kept the girls and Hank in line since they lost Mary.
Charles wished he might offer that same comfort, but Frank particularly had refused his every attempt, especially since Christmas. “Come, girls, come along - let us get to bed, and we might speak again with Papa in the morning, and we will offer the Lady Mary a good, warm welcome, yes?”
Frank and Nell grumbled their agreements, but they each stretched up on their toes to kiss Charles good-night, so he thought that he was forgiven his part in this whole farce. Even if it was only a temporary forgiveness, it might last just long enough for him to get the girls away from the house so they could shout at him in the peace of the park.
Muddy paused, squeezing his arm as she had Frank’s shoulder. How was it that she was so much an adult, when it seemed only last week that he had toted her and Nan about, one in either arm, as shield against their mother’s wrath?
“I will speak with them, Papa,” she promised. “They are young. They will understand.”
Charles hoped that was true. He hoped that the Lady Mary might benefit also from Muddy’s good sense, and hoped even more that they might like one another. When he returned to court, as he must, Lady Mary would have to come with him - Muddy was well liked at court, and it would be good for Lady Mary to have at least one ally beyond himself.
Muddy threw a wink over her shoulder to Hank as she closed the door, and then it was quiet.
“Dear boy,” Charles sighed, ruffling Hank’s dark curls. Hank was more like him than any of the girls, although he had that absurd York height that Harry and Mary had shared - ten years old, and already he was to Charles’ shoulder! “Come, sit with me a little while, and then I will release you to your rest.”
Hank was still young enough that Charles allowed him to tuck himself under his arm by the fire, curling close and sleepy and warm against Charles’ side. How he missed when the girls were little - a selfish part of him hoped that the Lady Mary would be amenable to bearing a child, if only so that they might together enjoy the thrill of a babe. Even her careful armour could not withstand such a lovely onslaught, and he knew well enough that he made handsome children with Tudor women.
And it would please Harry to have a grandchild. He would see it as proof of his own virility, proof that the children he sired were as virile as he was. If Charles was right, and he had no reason to doubt that he was, the Lady Mary would surely be pleased by anything that improved her standing with her father.
“Should Frank and Nellie and I call cousin Mary Mama, after you are married?”
The very thought of them calling another woman Mama was unbearable - twice as much so when she shared a name and half a face with their mother. Charles had been a terrible husband by anyone’s standards, neglectful and wandering, but he had loved Mary, no matter how poorly he had shown it. Lady Mary might have her aunt’s name and bed and titles, but she would not have Mary’s children.
“No, Hank, no,” he promised. “I do not think that she would want that, and I know that your sisters do not. This is not that sort of marriage.”
But Hank was already asleep, and besides - what boy of ten would be interested in the private business of his father’s marriage? Charles did not even think that he was interested in the private business of this particular marriage.
Mary did not think she would have woken up at all, had her soon-to-be stepdaughters not come calling on her. She could not remember when last she had slept so well, and could not decide whether to credit her rest to the thick, well-stuffed mattress and the array of warm blankets, or to the secure knowledge that she would not be disturbed during the night. At Hatfield, the housegirls had made a game of knocking on Mary’s door in the small hours to frighten her out of her slumber, perhaps thinking interrupted rest would cause her to fumble the duties she was forced to undertake for her sister. Mary had scorned them for it, for no granddaughter of the Catholic Monarchs would be so put off by missing an hour’s sleep, but she wondered now if it was a strong spine or simple stubbornness that had seen her through.
She seemed to have inherited very little from her lord father. Perhaps she had his blockheaded determination to best every challenge, if nothing else.
But her cousins, and their sister - she was sure that Lord Suffolk had two elder daughters, but only one was present. She was a pleasant looking woman, with the same dark, curly hair as the rest, but a softer face, less suspicious eyes. Mary struggled to remember anything about the Brandons who were not her cousins, and gathered her blankets higher around herself while she waited for them to introduce themselves.
Oh. Were they waiting for her? Not so long ago, that would have been proper and appropriate - she had been the King’s beloved daughter, second only to her lady mother among the women of the realm. She couldn’t decide if it was kindness or guile that made them wait. How foolish would she have to be, to presume the authority and precedence given to a princess in the house of her father’s most loyal lieutenant?
“Is she mute?” the taller of her cousins asked in a loud whisper - Frances. That must be Frances, the eldest. Mary was her godmother, she suddenly remembered, despite the scant months between their births. She had more Tudor in her face than Mary did - no one would pick Mary as the former princess, not with Frances in the room.
“Don’t be so rude, Frank,” the eldest lady said. “Forgive her, Lady Mary, she is spoiled and has no manners.”
Mary’s other cousin - Eleanor, yes, Eleanor, Mary knew their names but she was so sick with nerves that she felt stupid - laughed, ducking away when her sister slapped at her shoulder. She was pretty, too, face still round and childish, but Mary could already see that she would be just as lovely as Frances in a year or two.
“I am also Mary,” the eldest lady said, dipping just slightly at the knees. “You may have known my husband at court, my lady - Baron Monteagle?”
Mary could not recollect anyone by that name, but she smiled all the same and bowed her head, just slightly. Even last night, Lady Monteagle had smiled more warmly than any other Brandon, so Mary felt a little confident that she could be relied on to be kinder than her cousins would be.
Did Mary not understand her cousins, though? She knew how terrible a burden an unwanted stepmother could be. They must surely hate her.
“I understand that you have not seen your cousins in a long while,” Lady Monteagle said gently, nudging Frances and Eleanor closer to the bed ahead of herself. “But the rude one is Frances, and the other is Eleanor. Say hello, sisters.”
Frances nodded her head sharply, all pride, but Eleanor offered a dip at the knees the same as Lady Monteagle’s, and then she smiled.
“You ought to call me Nell,” she said, fidgeting with her fingers as though she were nervous - at least she was still smiling. Perhaps it was just that she was younger than Frances, or she had a sweeter nature than her sister, but she looked more shy than resentful of Mary’s presence. “Or Nellie - no one calls me Eleanor except the priest. You’re very welcome to Westhorpe, cousin.”
“Nell,” Frances hissed. “She’s not here as our cousin, she is here to take Mother’s place!”
“I promise that I am not,” Mary offered, wishing very much that she was not in just her nightrail, with her hair tangled all around her face. She looked even worse than usual, when she had no time to prepare herself in the mornings. “I had no idea of any of this until Lord Suffolk spoke to me last night. No one ever tells me anything, not until it’s already in motion.”
That gave Frances pause, or something like it, but Mary was more interested in the sudden sadness on Lady Monteagle’s face - what did that mean? Had Mary said something wrong, ruined her chances of even a civil relationship with Frances? Oh, God preserve her, she wished she was better at this, more charming, but being so isolated in Ludlow and then these few months in Hatfield had shaved away all her proper manners and she had no idea what was expected of her. If only she could write to her mother! Her mother would know what to do, how to behave, and Mary would be less trapped by her own incompetence if she only had her lady mother’s lead to follow!
“Frank,” Lady Monteagle said. “Nellie. Go ahead to breakfast, girls - tell Papa I will be down shortly, with the Lady Mary.”
“Oh, but Muddy-”
“I know you wished to help with her hair, Nell,” Lady Monteagle said, smiling indulgently as she smoothed a hand over Eleanor’s beautiful curls. “But please? I promise you we will not be very long, and if the Lady Mary permits it, you might help with her hair tomorrow morning.”
“I should be very glad of it,” Mary promised, winning her the first true smile she had seen in a very long time from Eleanor- from Nell. It was a name that suited her well. “I am very glad to meet you both again, after all this time.”
Nell dipped at the knees again before bounding off out of the room, but Frances hesitated.
“I am sure Papa will have my hide for being rude,” she said, “but I think you must understand why we might be anxious at having a new woman in our home, Lady Mary.”
She dipped at the knees, more than Mary expected, and fled on her sister’s heels. Mary wished very much for a sister then, one who was not a baby like Elizabeth, so she might have someone with whom to share confidences. No doubt the Brandon girls would report her poor manners and worse appearance to their father and brother before she and Lady Monteagle arrived for the morning meal, and Mary wondered if she would ever have anyone with whom to be close.
“I suppose you ought to call me Muddy, if you’re to call Eleanor Nellie,” Lady Monteagle said. “Everyone does, even Papa - I almost forget to answer to Mary, at this stage.”
“I- why Muddy?”
Lady Monteagle was already sorting through Mary’s trunk, but her smile was impossible to miss.
“Frank, of course,” she said, rolling her eyes. “She’s always been a bossy little thing, and as soon as she was old enough to understand that her mother and I shared a name, she decided that that was unacceptable. Muddy was close enough that she thought I shouldn’t be offended at the change, and it stuck.” She caught Mary’s eye over an armful of gown and undergarments, still smiling. “And Frances, much to her consternation, will always be Frank within these walls, thanks to Nellie. Everything that happens here is blamed on one of them or the other, and they usually deserve it.”
“I wish I might have known them better,” Mary offered. “Before all of this. I know that it must be difficult for them.”
“No more difficult than it must be for you, my lady,” Lady Monteagle said. “Frank really is spoiled rotten - she’s Papa’s special girl, for all that he leans on me and never has a moment’s trouble with Nellie. It means she gets away with saying and doing exactly as she pleases. She’s a horrible little monster, but she has a good heart. She won’t take against you for long.”
“I would not blame her if she did,” Mary said. “I know what it is to see another woman take your mother’s place.”
“Not like this,” Lady Monteagle said. “I don’t pretend to know the details of your particular situation, Lady Mary, but your mother isn’t dead. Theirs is. So is mine, so I’ve warned Frank not to be unfair to you - she’ll come around. Nellie’s already delighted to have you, and Hank will do whatever pleases the girls. He’s an amenable sort of boy, I think you’ll like him very much.”
It wasn’t until Lady Monteagle was rolling a stocking up Mary’s leg that she realised that she was being dressed - she’d had no help with anything other than her stays for the longest time, the other girls at Hatfield afraid to offer her anything but the barest help and Lady Bryan in the habit of stealing away the single servant Mary had been allowed with stupid, menial tasks every morning just to put Mary in her place. Stupidly, she felt tears welling in her eyes.
“I think,” Lady Monteagle said, carefully and pointedly turning her face away from Mary’s, “that we ought to introduce you to Lady Cathy. I think she will do you a great deal of good.”
“I- thank you, Lady M- Muddy.”
Lady Monteagle’s smile was not as radiant as Eleanor’s, but it had the same shape all the same. The guilesness of it chased away Mary’s tears before they could fall.
The dining hall was abuzz with laughter and noise when Mary walked in on Lady Muddy’s arm, feeling once again plain and self-conscious in her plain, unremarkable gown, in a dull, unremarkable shade of dark brown that hid stains well. It was a servant’s gown, nothing suitable for a King’s daughter but perhaps suitable for a King’s unwanted bastard. At least her hair was presentable, neatly gathered under the plain hood Lady Bryan had deemed necessary, and she was neat and clean. She could not help her mean appearance, but she would not shame her mother by being slobbish.
The laughter died down when they entered, but the chatter only shifted to a quiet undertone. Mary hated the heat that rushed to her cheeks, but she refused to be cowed - were these not her cousins? Was this not to be her home, as soon as she had her suitable clothes and Lord Suffolk made a woman of her? No, she would not be ashamed. Embarrassed, yes, she had not liked to be the centre of attention in a long while and she would be the centre of attention here until she was no longer a novelty, but not ashamed.
“Lady Mary,” Lord Suffolk said, waving her into the empty seat by his right hand even while settling a look of genuine anger on Frances, “please, sit with me.”
Mary sat. The only stranger at the table, the bright-eyed lady with the round cheeks, must be Lady Muddy’s Cathy. Mary had been anxious to meet Lady Catherine Willoughby from the moment Sir Henry had last night told her where they were going, hoping to find a companion in the daughter of her lady mother’s dearest friend, and was glad when Lady Catherine greeted her with a smile and a tentative little wave. Mary returned it, feeling a little silly, and Frances snorted at her display.
Mary let her hand drop. Lord Suffolk cleared his throat, still scowling at Frances, and Mary would have proceeded to be entirely mortified had the third of her cousins not leaned around his father to give her a beaming, brilliant smile. Mary’s heart nearly stopped at the sight of it, because for all Henry Brandon was his father in miniature, his smile might have been taken from his kingly uncle’s face.
Mary might not have seen her father’s smile since she was a child, but she remembered it. She’d held onto it as a treasure, hidden away as carefully as her mother’s cross and chain or her grandmother’s rosary.
“You are most welcome to Westhorpe, my lady,” he said. “Don’t mind Frank, she’s horrid.”
“ Hank!” Lord Suffolk snapped. “I’m sorry, Lady Mary, the children are too used to dining informally, as I’m sure you can see-”
“Children!” Frances scoffed. “As though I am an infant to dandle on her knee, Papa! Why, I am hardly more than a year younger than her-”
“Your room, Frances,” he said. “Now. I will speak with you after we have finished eating.”
She stormed away, stamping her feet every step of it, and made sure to slam her chamber door loud enough for the entire county to hear.
“Dear Frank has her mother’s flair for the dramatic,” Lady Catherine said, leaning conspiratorially across the table to Mary. “It makes her great fun for games, but a nuisance when there’s the slightest bit of upheaval.”
“Cathy!” Lord Suffolk cried, appalled. “Did I not ask all of you to make Lady Mary welcome? Did I not ask you to at least pretend to behave yourselves, just until the lady had settled in?”
“Oh, come now, my lord,” Lady Catherine said. “We’re always being told that we mustn’t lie, and isn’t artifice just a very enthusiastic sort of lying? And besides, Frank is dramatic, which is much better than being rude, which is what she surely must seem to Lady Mary at the moment.”
“You are a scoundrel, Cathy,” Lord Suffolk said, but his anger seemed to have dissolved a little. “I still must ask that you at least try not to scare Lady Mary away before she’s had a chance to eat her breakfast.”
“I shall so swear on the Holy Bible, if you have one brought to the table, Your Grace.”
“Don’t mind Cathy,” Lady Muddy said, nudging Lady Catherine with an elbow. “She has a flair for the dramatic that even Frank may not equal. You’ll see, if they don’t frighten you away.”
“How is it that only Nellie has an ounce of good manners?” Lord Suffolk sighed. “Please, my lady, accept my apologies - they are always informal, but they are generally not so rude.”
Mary had not said a word, overwhelmed by the clear fondness they all shared, the love that was so apparent between them all. She had never been part of such a thing, not even in her faraway happy memories of when her parents had still loved one another.
“Once we have eaten,” Lady Muddy said, “perhaps Nellie and Cathy and I might steal Lady Mary away, Father? I sent for the dressmaker yesterday, she should be here later this morning.”
“Praise God and all his holy angels for some sense being spoken at my table!” Lord Suffolk said, pointedly not smiling when Henry raised his voice in protest. “Yes, Muddy, that is allowable - Hank, hush, you have lessons after breakfast, lad, and I would not have you interfering in women’s business like this. You have the purse, Cathy?”
“Aye, my lord, as agreed.”
“Cathy has a shrewder mind for money than the Lord Chancellor,” Lord Suffolk said, whispering loud enough to carry but directing it to Mary. “She’ll make sure the dressmakers treat you more than fairly.”
“I- Well, that is, I do not-”
She had been so sure that she would not be ashamed, but how could she not be?
“I have no money to spare, Your Grace,” she said, staring hard down into her lap. “I have a little set aside from my allowance for repairs, but my stipend is not due again until the spring. Just before Lent, I think.”
His hand was very large and very warm on her shoulder.
“I understand that your father has not been so generous as he should have been,” Lord Suffolk said, as though his fingers were not resting on her bare skin like a brand. It had been such a very long time since anyone at all had touched her except to help her dress - perhaps since last she had been allowed to see her lady mother. “But I promise you, my lady - I am a wealthy man, and I enjoy spending my money on my family.”
My family. Oh. No one had claimed Mary in such simple terms in so very long.
“I will leave you to the care of my daughters, then,” he said, squeezing her shoulder. “Come, Henry, come along, my lad - let Cathy and your sisters see to the lady, and you’ll have your turn this afternoon.”
Eleanor- Nell handed Mary a prettily embroidered handkerchief, all edged in lace. She’d had nothing but plain linen since she left Ludlow, afraid even to put her needlework to good use because she knew one of those Howard girls would take anything of hers that pleased them, and somehow, this little thing, turned her acceptable, silent tears into a horrible sob.
“Nellie,” Lady Catherine said. “You and Muddy go on ahead to the dressmaker. I’ll wait with Lady Mary while she eats, yes? Go on ahead, dearest.”
Lady Catherine said nothing at all. Instead, she slipped into Lord Suffolk’s empty chair and ran a soothing hand up and down Mary’s back, humming a funny little shred of music that sounded so very familiar.
“It is a lullaby,” she said in Spanish, “that my mother used sing to me when I was very small. She told me she learned it in the nursery she shared with your mother.”
Mary lifted her head. Lady Catherine’s eyes were very bright and clear, green-blue and wide beneath the springing curls of her golden-blonde hair where they peeped below her hood.
“I shall be most insulted if you refuse to call me Cathy,” she said, still in Spanish, “or Cata, if you prefer, for I shall most certainly be calling you María.”
Frances locked her door, but Charles anticipated that. She really was just like Mary.
He came up the servant’s stairs and slipped into her bedchamber, assuming she’d be busily throwing a tantrum in her dressing room, and instead he found silence.
“Frank?” he called, wary - in case she was lying in wait, ready to throw something heavy at him, as Mary sometimes used to. “Frank, little love, are you there?”
Silence. An almighty sniffle from the dressing room. More silence. How unlike her to not loudly ensure that he knew how upset she was - she must be worse off than he realised. Damn it all! He had been so fraught over Harry’s stupid edicts, all the secrecy and lies that were allowing this plot to come to fruition, that he had not paid attention enough even to Muddy’s warnings. Damn him! He took so much pride in being such a good father, as though that might make God overlook his sins and failings as a husband, and he could not even mind his sweet girl’s heart!
She was a tall girl, sixteen and already the prettiest young woman in England - better looking than Nellie would be, because Nellie was too honest and too sweet to make the most of the haughty air Mary had given all of their children. Frances, though, had Charles’ own arrogance and confidence, and would hold her own against the finest beauties in Christendom when he finally relented and allowed her to come to court.
At present, of course, he would not - even had he been so inclined, he had sworn to Mary that he would not allow their girls to come under the Boleyn woman’s influence unless all avenues of escape were closed.
Allowing Frank to come to court would almost guarantee that she would be invited to join the Queen’s household. She was one of the highest-born girls in the realm, certainly the highest born wholly legitimate girl in the realm, and so she would take a place of honour in the woman’s household. She was a beauty, and charming, witty and clever as Mary had been, and she would be popular at court. Beloved at court, as once Charles himself had been.
There was no way to refuse that invitation without insulting the Boleyns. Perhaps soon, she could come along as part of the Lady Mary’s household… Perhaps.
“Oh, sweet girl,” he sighed, settling down on the floor beside her. She had a pretty silver rosary wound through her fingers, silver and emerald, and Charles’ heart felt heavy at the sight of it. Mary had left a rosary for each of the children, silver for the girls and gold for Hank, and Frances guarded hers jealously, reluctant even to allow Nellie to see it. That she had taken it out now, well, that meant that she was truly upset.
She curled up tighter, hiding her face in her skirts. She had discarded her hood, and her lovely glossy hair was all in disarray. Oh, she had his colouring, true enough, but she was Mary to the bone.
“Come here,” he said quietly, wrapping an arm over her shoulders. “Come here, my little rose. Tell Papa everything, Frances.”
“I don’t want her here, Papa!” she wailed. “She is coming into our lives and she is taking Mama’s rooms and her place in your bed, and she looks more like Mama than any of us do and- and- and you will have more children with her, and they will be the King’s grandchildren and you will- you won’t-”
“If you are about to suggest, Frances Mary Elizabeth Brandon,” he said, “that I should ever stop loving you very much, then you are not nearly as bright a girl as I thought.”
She turned baleful eyes on him, but they were free of fresh tears.
“I suppose you didn’t send Nan and Muddy off to a nunnery as soon as I was born,” she admitted. “But I- why does it have to be so soon, Papa? Mama has hardly been- Mama has only been- We only lost her- It is too soon!”
“I know, Frank,” he said. “I agree, darling girl. But I have no choice.”
“But everyone says that the King listens to you, Papa! Everyone says it!”
“Not about this,” he said. “Not about Mary.”
Frank gave another of those almighty sniffles.
“I don’t like it,” she said. “I don’t like her. She’s so twitchy.”
“I think she has had a difficult time of things, little one. You could stand to be a little more forgiving of her oddness.”
“Hank and Nellie are worried that she will expect them to call her Mama.”
“I think she’s terrified that any of you might want to,” Charles teased. “She’s more upset about this than you are, I promise you. You will only be gaining another lady in our household, remember - she will have to endure me.”
Frank’s pretty nose wrinkled in disgust.
“I suppose that is the worst of it,” she said. “But I won’t apologise, Papa. I simply won’t.”
“I expected nothing less,” he said. “But because you won’t apologise, you won’t have a new gown, either.”
The damask that they settle on for Mary’s wedding gown is soft, pale green.
“I know a royal bride weds in silver,” Lady Muddy said gently, settling a long curl of Mary’s hair against the damask as Frances slips in, red-eyed but smiling very slightly, “but I am afraid that that is not within our remit.”
Mary nodded. She did not trust her voice.
“She might wear silver jewellery,” Nell said, holding up a length of sheer silk perfectly the colour of a pearl. “Don’t you think, Frank? Shouldn’t she look lovely in silver?”
“It would look well against the green, I’ll say,” Frances said, shocking Mary by sounding absolutely civil. “Although I think gold suits you better generally, my lady - with your hair, I should think it would be very pretty indeed.”
“I have a few small pieces of gold,” Mary dared, her voice wavering. “My mother’s.”
Lady Cathy took her hand and squeezed tight.
“We might influence Lord Suffolk a little,” she said. “Make certain he does not choose a hideous bridal ring for you.”
“Ugh,” Frances said, in apparent agreement. “Papa has such vulgar taste.”
Mary was glad to allow them their chatter, letting it wash over her while she searched out a steadier tongue.
“Who,” she tried, after a very long moment, when the others had just finished laughing, “will give me away?”